|Today’s scripture readings:|
1 Timothy 2:1-7
If you’re a regular here at Gloria Dei you’ve probably heard me preach before about Bruce Kramer, who was the dean of the School of Education at the University of St. Thomas when he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in December 2010. From time to time, Bruce would sit down for interviews with Minnesota Public Radio’s Morning Edition anchor Cathy Wurzer to reflect on his journey with this incurable disease, and not long before his death, Bruce and Cathy published a book together called We Know How This Ends: Living While Dying.
At one point near the end of Bruce Kramer’s life, as his body was about to finally surrender to the disease, he said that it was like he’d been given a gift that he needed to share with others. Actually, it’s amazing how many times he uses the word “gift” to describe his experience of this terminal illness. It’s like this incurable disease initiated him into a secret society of people who have access to special wisdom most of us will never receive, and he feels a responsibility to share that wisdom—that gift—with the rest of us.
One of the ways ALS was a gift, Bruce says, is that it forced him to confront some of the false assumptions he had held in his earlier, able-bodied life. “If only I could eat correctly,” he says, “exercise enough, hold all things to moderation, devote myself in equal measure to my family and my job, I would have a great chance of living past ninety and looking back on a life well lived.” We are taught, aren’t we, that our futures are easily managed if we assume the “right life, the right beliefs, the right partners, the right jobs… the right possessions, the right dreams”—all the right “stuff.” Bruce Kramer writes, “There is such human arrogance in these assumptions…. [They] were like a sand foundation on which I built my life. It took one major storm to splinter my life along the fault lines that we carry as able-bodied persons, the irrational belief that we will control how we live and how we die.” “The arrogance of my own able-bodied existence,” Bruce says, “allowed me to believe that I was in complete control of my fate.” ALS shattered that false belief and forced him to come to terms with the fact that the future ultimately lies outside our control.
A psychologist named Colleen Georges reflects on her journey with anxiety. She says she lived with anxiety and endured frequent panic attacks for years and years, beginning all the way back in high school. “If I thought about things that might happen in the future,” she writes, “and replayed all possible scenarios, maybe I could prepare and get things right…. I stressed over everything—relationships, school, work, money, the future, the past. I thought that when I finally had all the things I wanted, like my degree, a great job, lots of money, a big house, then I could finally be happy.” She concludes: “Worrying felt like control…. Somehow I didn’t notice it wasn’t working.”
Finally she discovered something that didwork: gratitude. She started paying attention to the things for which she was thankful. At first, this was a struggle. She writes that when all you see is what you don’t have, trying to see what you do have is not easy. At night, she’d try to think of things she was grateful for that day and couldn’t come up with much. But she was looking for big things. So she started looking for little things—a driver that let her make a left turn, a person who held the door for her, a nice conversation with a stranger. Over time, she saw more and more things she had to be grateful for that she’d taken for granted—wonderful family and friends, education in a field she loved, an opportunity to help people. How could she have missed all of this when it was always there? Eventually, she says she even found gratitude in all the challenges that had come her way. She saw beauty in the past and learned to live happily in the present. Most importantly, gratitude gave her hope for the future. She writes, “I no longer felt the need to control the future and gained faith that life would evolve positively.” As Colleen journeyed from anxiety to gratitude, she realized she could relinquish control and trust that her future is in good hands.
Don’t you think it’s odd that the assigned readings for today aren’t so much about gratitude or giving thanks at all? The Bible is chock full of stories that would have been just perfect for Thanksgiving. But instead, the folks who put the lectionary together and chose the readings for today’s worship service chose these readings about worrying. What does worrying have to do with Thanksgiving?
Maybe it’s that giving thanks is the antidote to worry. For those of us who cling to control and are so stressed out trying to secure our futures, maybe learning to give thanks for our many blessings can teach us to trust that more blessings lie ahead, that we don’t need to work so hard to prepare our futures for ourselves but can turn some of that over to God.
I’ll confess this is one of my growing edges. I don’t always trust that my future is held in God’s hands and all will be well. I get stuck in a pattern of thinking it all depends on me and my effort. I’d guess many of us need to learn the lesson that Bruce Kramer and Colleen Georges learned themselves, that control is an illusion, that the future is, finally, in God’s hands.
I think that’s what Jesus is trying to teach us in today’s Gospel lesson. “Look at the birds,” he says. “They work hard to find food but it’s always there. And they don’t store up a surplus to prepare for a possible shortage tomorrow. God provides what is needed for today, even for the birds. And if God provides for the birds, won’t God certainly also provide for you?” Jesus tells us to look at the birds. Our problem is that we are so busy we don’t even notice the birds, much less pay attention to what they’re doing.
The call of the Gospel today is to set aside our constant worry and to practice believing that God will provide what we need. What will be will be. What needs to get done will get done. When we begin to trust that this is true and learn to live by faith that God will give us what we need, we discover a little more space in our lives to pay attention to the world around us. We begin to recognize the beauty of creation, the gift of our relationships, the goodness of humankind. When that happens, we can begin to respond with gratitude, giving thanks to God for all the ways we have been blessed. And we can look to the future in hope, trusting that God is good and that, to put it in the words of the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Again and again, Bruce Kramer returns to his theme, that for him, ALS was in many ways a gift. It forced him to be honest about the limits of his capacity for control. And he says that honesty led to urgency. “It isn’t enough to work. It isn’t enough to love [one’s] family. It isn’t enough to connect with friends. It needs to be done with passion, abandon, love, and light. There is no time to hold grudges, be afraid, and not forgive. There is no time for games. There really are places to go, people to see, and things to do, and time is wasting…. That is the gift of urgency, and I am thankful for it…. As strange as it may seem, I am thankful for a life framed by true love and ALS allowing me to grow beyond the lesser person I could have been… blind and ignorant and tone deaf in a world of art and knowledge and music.”
When we consider the people wemight become, we pray for good health and length of days that were so elusive for Bruce Kramer, but we pray even more for our eyes to be opened, as his were, to the blessings that surround us even today, and in response to these blessings, for wisdom to live more passionately and with less worry in the present, and for faith to turn our futures over to God, trusting that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
Bruce H. Kramer, We Know How This Ends: Living While Dying, with Cathy Wurzer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
Colleen Georges, “The Journey from Anxiety to Gratitude,” on HuffPost, April 8, 2015, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-journey-from-anxiety_b_7026946.